Chapter 4: Celebration

Becoming Neighbours


Celebration. We are grateful: amidst joy and sorrow, we discover hope.

Hewa and Gashaw, along with their two daughters, crossed the border into Canada on foot. Because of the complex circumstances of their arrival, they were ineligible for protection in Canada through a refugee claim. Although they were fleeing imminent danger in their country of origin, the fact that they had first attempted to seek refugee protection in the United States meant that their best chance to stay in Canada was through an application for permanent residence on “humanitarian and compassionate grounds.”

Their family lived in limbo — uncertain whether Canada would become their permanent home or whether they would have to return to the place they had been forced to flee. While they waited, life continued. The girls enrolled in the elementary school just down the street from Kinbrace. The family found an apartment to rent in the neighbourhood. Gashaw became pregnant. Hewa applied for a work permit and was hired by a landscaping company. Each week, when the family returned to Kinbrace for a community dinner, Hewa would pull out his phone and show me photos of his latest work: intricate rock walls and stone pathways meandering through perfectly manicured gardens. He was always well-groomed himself, with a stylish Kurdish coiffure and the unmistakable scent of cologne.

One Friday, Hewa stopped by, looking dejected and not at all himself. He walked into the common space, where the sun streamed in through sliding glass doors. It was a slow day, and I was alone. I got up from my work and as we stood by the bulletin board, decked in photos from last year’s camping trip, birthday parties, and backyard dinners, Hewa began to speak.

“I don’t know what to do,” he confided, with tears in his eyes. “Every day my daughters cry. My wife has no joy. I want to see them laugh and smile. And I wonder, where is this Canada that we heard about? The one that we thought would welcome us?” I had no adequate answer to his questions, so I said nothing in response.

Three months later, I received a text from Hewa: “I have good news!” Then, just moments later, my phone dinged again: “We have a daughter! And we’re staying in Canada!” I felt a vicarious weight lift. What impeccable timing that their daughter would arrive the day they received approval for permanent residence in Canada. Their waiting was finally over.

A man cradles his newborn child.
Illustration by Anika Bauman

The next week, Hewa returned to Kinbrace, walking up to the back doors with a hefty cardboard box in his arms, beaming with pride and relief. “This is a gift,” he said, setting the box down on the floor. I looked inside and saw bags of rice, lentils, and sugar; olive oil; and cans of chickpeas. He laid them out on a small table in the common room and left a piece of paper that read: “From a former resident.”

We are grateful

Hewa’s armful of gifts is a picture of gratitude which reminds me of many similar stories in the community. I remember Saima, a Pakistani neighbour who approached me one day with an envelope and said, “This is for Kinbrace. So you can help more people.” There was a crisp twenty-dollar bill inside. Each month after receiving her living allowance from social assistance, she would return with another twenty-dollar bill, stating the same intention to pass on this gift of welcome to other families. I remember José, who came through our back gate months after he had moved out, holding a party-sized cake to share with the Kinbrace staff and residents. The cake was decorated with a simple cursive, “Thank you.”

In these moments, we glimpse celebration in daily life, when gratitude is made manifest through a gift or word or gesture. At Kinbrace, there is no shortage of everyday occasions to celebrate: a birthday, a work permit received, a first day of school, a religious holiday, a positive refugee determination. But on one special occasion each year, gratitude itself gets centre stage. Thanksgiving is a holiday that draws together current and former residents, hosts and staff, friends, and volunteers. At the neighbourhood church hall, we string up lights and hang swaths of autumnal-toned fabric from the ceiling. As guests arrive, so does the feast: Kurdish deep-fried turkey, Afghan kabli pulao, and Turkish sweets… with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy on the side.⁸ When our stomachs are more than satisfied, we share our gratitude around the tables by writing words on paper leaves and hanging them on the “Thanksgiving tree” — “love, community, safety,” “my bike,” “new friends,” “shared meals,” “freedom.”

Amidst joy and sorrow

For all of this gratitude, many people who first encounter the Kinbrace community — whether as volunteers, donors, neighbours, or applicants for host or staff roles — find celebration to be the most perplexing of Kinbrace’s five core values. “Welcome,” of course. “Trust,” certainly. “Mutual transformation,” yes. But “celebration?” Some people might wonder, “For refugee claimants who have left everything behind, what is there to celebrate?”

What is there to celebrate? To that, I would argue, “Everything.”

Though we may find countless occasions to celebrate, celebration is not primarily about what we celebrate, but who. Each person who comes through our doors has inherent dignity; we are each created with irreplicable beauty. Celebration is always possible, amidst both sorrow and joy, because people are worth celebrating.

This practice of celebration, regardless of our life circumstances, becomes particularly striking when we share life with people who are experiencing forced displacement. For many families at Kinbrace, the journey to Canada involves a painful separation — not just from homeland and culture, but also from lifelong friends, elderly parents, and beloved daughters and sons.

What is there to celebrate? To that, I would argue, “Everything.”

Benjamin and Subira, in their flight to Canada, left their three young children in the care of loving grandparents. They anticipated landing in Vancouver, securing housing and jobs, and then having their children follow. In their minds, the whole process would take no more than a few weeks or a month at most. They said their goodbyes, with no idea that they wouldn’t see their children again for eighteen months. Benjamin and Subira’s time at Kinbrace was the year and a half that they were separated from their children — it was the darkest season of their lives. But what incomparable joy was unleashed when, after finally receiving a positive refugee determination and permanent residence in Canada, they watched their children run through the international arrivals and into their arms. For Subira and Benjamin, there was nothing like the sorrow of separation or the joy of reunification… and their reunion was a great cause for celebration!

Two outstretched arms hold a birthday cake out to young girl with a party hat. She is surrounded by smiling people.
Illustration by Anika Bauman

As celebration works its way into our days, we discover that sorrow and joy aren’t polar opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. Celebration is possible in a season of intense sadness, and it often wells up out of the deep space of loss. Only when we travel to the depths of sorrow do we discover a joy that we thought was impossible. My early days at Kinbrace were revelatory. I remember reflecting on the influx of both joy and sorrow in my life and wondering, “What was I doing before I met these neighbours? Living in some kind of safe emotional middle-ground?” Now I was experiencing a fuller spectrum of emotions — more profound losses and greater joys than ever before. Both the intimate conversations when a grief was shared and the boisterous laughter at a birthday party were offering me a taste of a broader, deeper, more abundant life.

We discover hope

I remember celebrating Thanksgiving with my friend Hewa the year that his family was still waiting, uncertain if Canada would be their permanent home. As the evening’s festivities were drawing to a close, we started stacking chairs and folding tables. Then, Hewa pulled out his phone and cued the music. He moved to the middle of the room, which had been filled with tables minutes earlier, and a group of other Kurdish men gathered around him. They formed a circle, arms over shoulders, and began swaying side to side. As the music quickened, their feet began to sidestep and kick. Hewa let out a whoop and holler, and the rest of us gathered around, smiling as we clapped along.

Hope has an impromptu way of appearing, often as spontaneous as Hewa’s dance. It is most potent when we least expect it, coming not as a given, but as a grace. The gift of celebration is experienced in its fullness when we do not turn away from the pain of loss — whether our own or someone else’s. For people who have been forced from their homes and countries, the darkness is undeniable… but so is the light. Hope has a way of breaking into the darkness, paving the way for a practice of celebration that authentically reflects the span of our human experience. Celebration is a testament to the goodness of life that cannot be snuffed out.

When have you witnessed an expression of gratitude that moved you? When have you felt moved to express gratitude?

Think of a time in your life when you felt sorrow and joy at the same time. What was that like?

Where is an unlikely place that you have “discovered hope?” Where do you long to discover hope?

Kabli pulao is a traditional Afghan dish made of rice cooked with chicken, carrot, and raisins. It’s incredibly tasty but labour intensive to make. As one neighbour told me, “If you’re having guests in Afghanistan and you don’t make this dish, you’re really not offering hospitality.” He also expressed how quickly a “guest” becomes a “host” in an Afghan home. “After a few nights the guest is washing the dishes, too!” he said while standing at the sink.

NEXT PAGE: Chapter 5: Prayer ->


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